The Vietnam Veteran:
The term ‘Vietnam veteran’ has been frequently used as a universal umbrella to stereotype all those who served in Vietnam. This misleading impression has far-reaching ramifications for some of the veterans who have faced and are still facing war-related physical and psychological damage today. Genuine sufferers, on occasion, have been derided by some people, simply on the grounds that there appears to be ‘nothing wrong’ with ‘the other’ veterans with whom these outside observers may have come in contact. The latter then question why ‘John Smith’ should be suffering from any ill effects if others appear in good mental health. Such a naïve comparison suggests that all veterans are mere clones with identical personalities and IQs, having each been brought up with identical social, family, religious and educational experiences.
Furthermore, it assumes that each veteran would have undergone identical experiences in Vietnam and post-Vietnam. This is clearly not the case and consequently, in part, explains why some combat servicemen faired better than others did in the aftermath and why some non-combatants were even affected at all. There are of course (and always have been from previous wars too no doubt) a small percentage of those who have regrets about roles they played, or fantasise about roles they might have liked to have played, but didn’t. These people too are suffering, but from psychological consequences far removed from the direct effects of combat.
The roles of the ‘Vietnam veteran’ were extremely diverse. Within the navy (some 2,800 personnel without conscripts) there were diving team members, those manning troop and supply ships and destroyers and crews on navy aircraft. Within the air force (some 4,400 personnel also without conscripts) there were fixed wing and ‘chopper’ crews and base support crews. Within the army (some 40,000 personnel with conscripts), roles were as diverse as: patrolling infantry, advisers, SAS, artillery gunners, engineers, armoured vehicle crews and Cessna pilots. Along with these was the largest group of all - the army base support personnel. They were concerned with tasks such as catering, hygiene, clerical, transport, medical, amenities, intelligence, policing, ordinance, supply etc. Many from these groups were stationed at Nui Dat, others located at Vung Tau or Saigon or attached to U.S. or ARVN bases throughout the country. Some had been located at Bien Hoa during 1965-66.
The short tour of a navy mid-shipman on a destroyer or on the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney (disparagingly known as ‘The Vung Tau Ferry’) was obviously markedly different to that of the forward scout in a rifle section of the infantry, in near constant danger, who slogged it out in the jungles, with little respite for 12 full months or more. An army forklift driver at the beach-side supply base at Vung Tau (ALSG) who worked an 8-4 p.m. shift each day (often followed by leave each night) contrasted sharply with a gunship crewman also based at Vung Tau. Surely an electrician installing generators at the Nui Dat base camp would have been considered far more fortunate than an infantryman who ventured out beyond the wire each day. However, the former (the contented electrical engineer at Nui Dat) may have considered himself hard done-by in comparison to his colleagues carrying out similar duties in the very safe haven of the ALSG beach-side camp, adjacent to the Vung Tau leave centre.
So whilst it is imperative to recognise that all veterans had valuable roles to play in the total war effort, it is ridiculous to blanket all of them with a monolithic tag when assessing the possible effects upon them. This stereotyping has come about partly through ignorance in civilian quarters and has sadly been taken advantage of by a (very small?) minority of ex-servicemen. This stereotyping surrounding Vietnam veterans prevailed during the 1970s and still persists to some degree even today. For example, if a serious crime such as murder was (is) committed and then reported in the media, the offender was (is) rarely if ever labelled in such terms as: “John Smith, a WW2 veteran, was arrested today for ….[whatever].” However, since around 1968-70 (Tet, My Lai, Cambodia, U.S. drug abuse revelations etc.) the article or news release would usually be in such terms as: “John Smith, a Vietnam veteran, was today arrested for...[whatever].” Why? Does this imply that being a Vietnam veteran contributed to anti-social behaviour? I believe that in such reporting, that is exactly what is intended. Such thinking probably stems from myths arising from the excessive (at times) and sensationalised media coverage of the war, the publicised behaviour of a deviant minority and from the unrealistic films about it (e.g. First Blood, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver etc.).
We sent young ‘boys’ to die horrible deaths in foreign rice paddies and jungles, fighting the so-called ‘Yellow Peril’, in order to hold back the scourge of communism. At the same time, we continued trading with China, the USSR and Czechoslovakia, all of which had been supplying armaments to North Vietnam to kill and maim our troops. We ignored the frantic pleas from small uninfluential states like Timor (1975-99), Irian Jaya, Kurdistan, Tibet and Afghanistan (until 9/11/01) when they were in trouble, because they had nothing tangible to offer us in return. Yet, we spring to the aid of despotic regimes like oil-rich Kuwait for ulterior motives; motives hidden behind those espoused by our leaders. Governments buy support from the population by getting individuals to think via their hip pockets. Cheaper oil and improved trade with powerful nations equilibrates with higher living standards for the individual here. Who then is prepared to risk that for the sake of mere principles?
Over eighty per cent of Vietnamese are peasants, the average of whom earns a mere pittance per annum, working a gruelling six-seven day week, with little or no respite. Australians have no grievance with the Vietnamese people, yet for 20 years (1975-95) our successive governments had exacerbated their economic plight, by our ‘toadying’ to both the U.S. and China in co-operating with their vengeful economic blockade on that small, devastated country. This was on the pretext that Vietnamese troops had invaded Cambodia in 1979. The U.S. has short-term memory lapses when it comes to their invasion of Cambodia in 1970. They conveniently forget or ignore the fact that it was due to the efforts of these very Vietnamese troops in Cambodia that the evil Pol Pot regime was finally overthrown. The western world had stood by in shocked silence or had uttered mere rhetorical distaste at the revelations concerning the Cambodian ‘killing fields’. Our inaction indirectly supported this tyrannical monster and his murderous barbaric cohorts for four long years. Our leader during the early years of that era (Malcolm Fraser: 1975-83) later regularly graced our television screens, revelling in the altruistic restoration program that took place in Cambodia, post Pol Pot, as if he had been instrumental during his term in office. His (and his successors’) main concerns (at least in foreign policy) appeared to have been to appease the Chinese (supporters of Pol Pot) and not to offend the Americans who wanted revenge for their self-perceived humiliation in Vietnam.
Our Prime Minister in 1992 (Keating) appeared to have almost ‘cowered’ before the might of the military dictators of Indonesia on the eve of Anzac Day, denigrating the symbolism of our flag. He then had the affront to turn up next day at the ‘Kokoda Track’ in Papua New Guinea and attempt to gain political mileage from the blood of the men he had insulted. Under Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating we had turned a blind eye to Indonesian aggression and repression in Timor and Irian Jaya for many years. Furthermore, our army has trained Indonesian army officers and troops at our Canungra jungle training camp in Queensland, with the consequence that they no doubt could better fight our old allies in Timor and ‘western New Guinea’ (and perhaps our own ‘boys’ in some future confrontation/war). The peoples from these invaded and repressed lands had suffered miserably and even died (some 15,000 of them) helping our troops during World War II. For 25 years we repaid them shabbily. Our old jungle fighters of the Owen Stanleys, on that 50th anniversary of their supreme sacrifice, must have surely turned in their graves in shame. At last, in 1999, we, who are alive and have benefited from their efforts, finally, after 25 years, stood up to be counted and ousted Indonesia out of Timor. How far we are willing to go is yet to be determined. The oil in the Timor Sea is a coveted prize. Let us all hope that our belated alliance with Timor against Indonesia had nothing to do with gaining access to that oil. Perhaps that is being too naïve, in light of the current dispute with Timor over sharing rights.
Time is not only a great healer, but unfortunately in some instances it allows us to forget things that should never be forgotten. To paraphrase the American philosopher George Santayana, “Those who ignore history will be condemned to relive it!” One generation after Vietnam we were at it again. Some leaders of the Australian Government in 1991 had been at the forefront (or supporters) of the anti-war movement, 25 years before. This time however, it was they who were engaged in sending our young men into another U.S. controlled foreign war. Again we were told that it was necessary in order to stop the aggression of a large power (Iraq) over a smaller power (Kuwait). We were assured that the underlying motive for our involvement had nothing to do with protecting our oil supplies from Kuwait. Six weeks later Iraq was thrown out of Kuwait and Iraq’s leaders turned their anger, hatred and forces onto the defenceless people of Kurdistan. For weeks we ignored the Kurds’ plight under Iraq’s horrific onslaught, in spite of the Kurds' pleas for international help from allied forces already in the region. Non-military relief was finally approved, but only after considerable public pressure on our leaders to halt this outrageous hypocrisy. Surely there had to be another motive for our deafening silence for so long in this case, besides the fact that Kurdistan had no oil to offer us! ... Or was there?
Ironically, those once anti-war supporters of the 1960's, in power in 1991, were eager in their support of the First Gulf War push. We will never know just how far their eagerness would have led us; not because they had reached the limit of their commitment, but because the war was cut short by the overwhelming superiority of the allied forces. Against a more formidable foe, we may have witnessed a completely different scenario regarding our resolve to limit the number of young men we would have been prepared to sacrifice before we again called: “Enough!”
It took the lessons of Vietnam for the politicians and military to learn how to win in the Gulf War, but it took the latter (and other more recent events), to awaken us to our folly of having assumed that after Vietnam, it was now we who controlled our politicians and military hierarchy. We remain vulnerable to the incompetence and selfish ambitions of the powerful few, who seem to re-appear with monotonous regularity in different guises, floating upwards to the top of the boiling mix in society’s cauldron. To quote an old truism from my days as a high school teacher: “As one ‘class clown’ is removed from the pack, another will emerge to take over the vacancy.” The process is cyclical and indeed ubiquitous! Yet if fore-warned and vigilant, we can control it … if we have the resolve!
In spite of the obscenity of the Vietnam War, I and no doubt many others, gained significant solace from the belief that that terrible waste in human life and bitter division in our community, would never be allowed to happen again. The death of mates and ‘brothers in arms’ would have at least served some useful purpose; the people of Australia would never again fall for those lies that were so readily fed to them. Our leaders would never again try on us a foreign war to further their own selfish ends, strut the world stage, or ‘kiss the rear end’ of a foreign President or Prime Minister, without suffering the appropriate repercussions for such behaviour. No, they would never fall for that again ... but then ...? The 2002 statements from Foreign Minister Downer and Prime Minister Howard in support of U.S. President Bush’s plans for Iraq generated shivering feelings of déjà vu. The ghosts of Menzies, Holt, Hasluck, Johnson and Co. were still lurking about. We were soon to hear their disciples also urge: “All the Way!”
Fifteen odd years have elapsed since the war in Iraq commenced. As the death toll rose and the new tactic of kidnapping foreign civilian aid workers was increasingly employed, Vietnam loomed ominously clear in the minds of those who experienced that horror. Despite the popular rejection of any link, there were nevertheless striking similarities. A hated western power and its allies had been long stalemated in subjugating the insurgents (guerrillas) who fight without uniforms, using the city slums as their equivalent jungle hide. Language and cultural ignorance, mixed with religious dogmatism, had shed little light on the search for a solution. More worrying was the fact that the allies had adopted no clear strategy for success or exit, the absence of which were regarded as key factors in the quagmire and ultimate political failures in Vietnam. Slowly, each of the allies capitulated to the terrorists and withdrew prematurely. Now it’s Afghanistan and Syria. After withdrawal ... what then?
Robert J. Jackson, 25 of Greta, NSW.
“Jackson was drafted in February 1966, when he was 20. Joining the Regular Army in 1968 he went to Vietnam as a corporal with 8RAR, returning there after leave on February 1, 1970. Along with 8 other Australian soldiers, he was killed by a mine explosion in Phuoc Tuy Province on February 28, 1970. The RSL at Greta in NSW refused to allow him to be buried in its section of the cemetery. It did not consider Vietnam was a ‘real’ war.”
Courtesy ‘The Australian’ Newspaper, Oct. 1992
Let us trust that the ‘dinosaurs’ responsible for decisions like Jackson’s treatment (and for the other tragedies outlined in this book) are now extinct and will never be allowed to ‘re-evolve’! Yet, the daily headlines, laced with ill-conceived outbursts of pre-emptive strikes from the ‘chicken-hawks’ of yesteryear, dampens my optimism. In spite of Santayana’s warning, we continue to ignore lessons from history and so have only ourselves to blame if we are consequently ... 'condemned to relive it!'